Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Great European Vacation: Germany

It has been a dream of Tonya’s to visit Germany ever since high school, when she studied the language for two years. The dream has finally come true. You can see the pictures at:

We crossed into Germany from the Austrian Tirol area, entering the southern area of Bavaria. We continued on to the lovely medieval city of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, across to the Mosel and Rhine Valleys, then down the French border to the Black Forest. Germany is a pleasant country, but it was pretty much flattened in WWII, so much of it has been rebuilt within the last 60 years. Tonya acknowledges that her German dream has come true. She also says that she doesn’t feel any particular need to go there again.

For us, the main attraction of Bavaria and the Mosel and Rhine valleys was the castles, particularly along the Rhine. Back in the middle ages, any nobleman who could scrape together enough money to extend a chain across the Rhine could then halt commercial traffic and extort….excuse me, charge….tolls from the passing merchants. This was a big source of income. Unfortunately, it also slowed the economic development of Germany for many centuries. After the slow disintegration of the Holy Roman Empire (which, according to one historian with a sense of humor, was neither holy nor Roman nor an empire) in the 1400’s and 1500’s, Germany fought the nasty Thirty Years’ War (1618 to 1648), which left much of the area in ruins. It remained a patchwork of little kingdoms which wasn’t unified as a country until Bismarck did the job in the late 1800’s.

My favorite castle was Neuschwanstein, built in Bavaria by Mad King Ludwig. When you read the history, it turns out that Ludwig may have been unfairly named. “Ludwig the Odd” was probably more appropriate. He was declared insane in a power grab by his ministers. Now, Ludwig’s younger brother Otto was truly the crazy one; he didn’t last long as king.

The medieval city of Rothenburg ob der Tauber was a victim of the Thirty Years’ War. It had been economically prosperous up until that time, but was conquered and plundered several times during the war. Over the following centuries, it never recovered. While other cities such as Frankfurt and Munich were modernizing and becoming powerful, Rothenburg limped along with its old medieval buildings. At some point, “old and run-down” became “charming and medieval”, and Rothenburg enjoyed an economic rebirth as a tourist destination.

Our last destination in Germany was the Black Forest. It’s a very pretty area, and we had several nice hikes. Still, it may not have been smart to visit it on the same trip with our Alpine hikes; it sort of pales in comparison. The most interesting thing was an open-air museum with a number of 17th and 18th-century farm buildings which had been physically moved to the site. Some of the buildings had still been occupied as late as the 1960’s.

One interesting side note: I think I’ve written that Spain has a different deck of playing cards than America. In America, we actually use the French deck: 52 cards with suits of spades, clubs, diamonds, and hearts. In Spain, they have a 48-card deck with suits of gold, cups, swords, and clubs (which look more like cudgels). It turns out that Germany has still another style: a 36-card deck with suits of hearts, bells, leaves, and acorns. I’ll be darned. Naturally, we had to buy a deck. A friend loaned us a book with a variety of card games from different countries, using the different decks.

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